Story About One of the State's Most Interesting Characters

West Union Record
January 28, 1941

Some early reminiscences of Parkersburg are revealed by the interesting story of one of West Virginia history's most illustrious characters and his life here. He is Joseph H. Diss Debar who designed the official seal and coat-of-arms for the state when West Virginia came into the union. He lived on what is now Twelfth street, and many local people remember him and his family. His first wife, Clara Levassor, is buried in the Riverview cemetery at the head of Juliana street, and also one of his cousins, a man from France, was interred there.

Joseph Diss Debar was a highly educated Frenchman, and besides speaking, reading, and writing French, German and English equally well, he knew Spanish and Italian and could translate Latin and Greek. Diss Debar was also an artist of great talent, and many sketches of early state history bear his name. He was a very distinguished looking gentleman, wearing a Van Dyke beard, dressed in a cloak and high silk hat, twirling a cane.

Born in Alsace
Joseph Diss Debar was born in Alsace, France, two years after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo. When a young man, he fell in love with lovely Clara Levassor, much younger than himself. Since her father, Eugene Levassor disapproved very heartily, the Levassor family moved from France to America. A prosperous trading center called Parkersburg, was favorably situated on the Ohio river, so it was here Eugene Levassor settled his family. They lived at what is now Seventh and Quincy streets (it was later the Jackson property).

Joseph Diss Debar sailed toward America from Liverpool, England, in January, 1824 on the steamer Britannia, to follow Clara. Charles Dickens was also making the voyage, and the two became friends. During the journey aboard ship Diss Debar sketched a very commendable portrait of Dickens, with a few swift pencil strokes - the picture is said to have been preserved.

Found Clara Here
Diss Debar found his beloved Clara in Parkersburg, and in 1847 they were married at Marietta. He was a man of 30, his wife, just 17. All stories concerning Clara describe her as being extra-ordinarily beautiful ...small and fragile. They lived in a frame house on Twelfth street between Ann and Juliana. It was on April 29, 1849, that a son named Joseph Henry, Jr., was born - but his beautiful mother was dead. Clara was buried in the Riverview cemetery, with a simple white stone marking her grave. Her parents, the Levassors, took the small boy and moved to Cincinnati. They returned every spring, for several years, to visit Clara's grave. The son lived to be a very old man, but left no heirs.

Following his wife's death, Diss Debar went to Doddridge county, where he had bought a tract of land. He brought a Swiss colony to the hills of West Virginia and settled them near Leopold, a little town which he called Santa Clara - for his wife. It is in Cove district near Weston, almost on the Lewis county line. This was an early settlement of its kind, and the chief industry of the community was cheese-making.

Married Second Time
Diss Debar's second marriage was to Amelia Cain of Doddridge county, where the marriage is recorded as August 3, 1859. They had five children, Frances the eldest daughter was noted for her beauty. Mary, the second daughter, married a vaudeville actor. George, the third child, was killed by a train, and Florent and Clara, the two youngest, are still living today in Philadelphia.

During this time Joseph Diss Debar was prominent in matters of state. Governor Boreman appointed him commissioner of immigration in 1864. He did surveying and acted as agent for a land company. He prepared, compiled and published the first "Handbook of West Virginia." He was a member of the House of Delegates from Doddridge county in 1864. In 1863 the legislature appointed Diss Debar to make drawings in compliance with their suggestions for a state seal and coat-of-arms. The design was made and was adopted in September 1863.

Bears Motto
The seal is 2 1/2 inches in diameter and bears the motto "Montani Semper Liberi" which means "Mountaineers Always Free." The picture Diss Debar put on the seal depicts symbolic representation of the state, its people, its industries. The two men standing on either side of the rock marking the state's foundation (June 20, 1863) indicate the people and their occupations. The plowhandles and the axe indicate the cultivation taking place where original forests were cleared. The wheat and cornstalk represent grain. Mineral wealth is shown by the miner, his pick, and the lumps of coal at his feet. The crossed rifles in the foreground tell of liberty that is ours, maintained by force of arms.

The reverse side (not seen or used as often as the observe side)is encircled by a wreath of laurel and oak. Emblematical objects typical of West Virginia's landscape, productions, resources, and natives are grouped inside.

Used His Name
Another person connected with the Diss Debar name was a notorious woman criminal, claiming to have been Diss Debar's wife in earlier years in France. This fact has been misproven, but she nevertheless used the name, Madam O'Della Diss Debar. She was born in 1851, the daughter of a Louisville, Kentucky music publisher. She visited in Parkersburg and is remembered by some present residents. She visited the Diss Debar home many times and outwardly appeared to be a relative or family friend, but evidently she caused much trouble.

"Madam Diss Debar" traveled over the world on her criminal missions, posing as a member of royalty under assumed names. She was guilty of many various swindles and murders. She married several times and also served countless different jail and prison terms.

In later years, the elderly Joseph Diss Debar left West Virginia and went to Pennsylvania. He died in Pittsbugh in 1906 and is buried in Philadelphia. So ended the long, eventful life of the versatile Frenchman to whom West Virginia is endebted for its coat-of-arms. He has some relatives now living in this vicinity. They are Mrs. Ida Benninger and Mrs. Beatrice Grimm of Parkersburg. Mrs. G. E. Powell and Mrs. Amelia Wilson of Vienna, and A. J. Cain of Belpre.

Sources on Joseph H. Diss Debar